Recent conferences in two very different places illustrated the range of challenges being faced by cities these days. At the 1st international Conference on Age-Friendly Cities, co-sponsored by the World Health Organization, the International Federation on Ageing, and Ireland's Age Friendly County Programme, in Dublin last month, the focus was on how urban planning and urban design can best accommodate an aging population - and that includes a great many of us fairly soon, in terms of the 75 million aging baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 in the U.S. alone. Many of the themes reflected sound city-building practices generally - mixed-use, transit-accessible, walkable environments. Some cities are already boasting about being "age-friendly" - "When I retire, I want to move to Manchester," read one promotional banner. Yet there were deeper questions about the changing character and stability of cities. In several countries in Europe, notably Italy and Ireland, the "replacement rate" in population dynamics has tapered off, with dwindling numbers of younger people in the workforce, in proportion to those retired. As a result, something has been added to the toolbox for many mayors of large cities: the "youth dependency ratio," a calculation of this lopsidedness and how it figures into municipal finance.
Dollars and cents, meanwhile, were very much on the minds of the municipal officials gathered at the League of California Cities. Amid the vendors touting permeable paving surfaces, LED streetlights, and solar-powered trash compactors, were companies specializing in labor negotiations for increasingly tough contract talks and layoffs, and one consulting group that helps cities and towns pass local tax-increase measures, to pay for schools or keeping police on the streets. California is considered the leading edge of states and local governments grappling with the ongoing fiscal crisis.
Earlier this year, lawmakers tried to deal with a $10 billion budget deficit with a package including some fee increases for car registration and fighting forest fires. But California is an exceptional place for other reasons. It is home to Proposition 13, the property tax assessment limit that Ronald Reagan predicted would catch on like "prairie fire." But as Chris Palmieri at Business Week recently wrote, such property tax caps have wreaked fiscal havoc. Meanwhile, California continues to lead the way on climate, including a focus on land use planning. Trying to do something about global warming in a tough economy make the West Coast an important place to watch.